Alumnus Cody Keenan MPP 2008: White House Wordsmith

January 11, 2010
by Matt Kohut MPA/MC 2003

As the summer of 2007 drew to a close, Cody Keenan MPP 2008 faced an agonizing choice. He had spent the last three months in Chicago working as an intern with the Obama campaign's speechwriting team. Now he was slated to return to Harvard Kennedy School for the second year of his program, just as the campaign was set to kick into high gear. With deeply mixed emotions, he decided to pack his car and return to Cambridge.

"I feared it might be the worst decision I ever made. I never regretted going back to school, but I thought, 'They're never going to hire me back. They'll hire somebody else, or the campaign will be over early, and I'll miss the boat,'" Keenan said.

In politics, timing is everything. The primary battle between Senators Obama and Clinton dragged on until June 2008. Two days after Harvard commencement on June 5, Clinton conceded. The Obama campaign wanted Keenan back as a full-time writer. He drove to Chicago that weekend to rejoin the speechwriting team.

Keenan was already accustomed to the pressures of working for a Senator in the national spotlight: before attending Harvard Kennedy School, he worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy for three and a half years. He grew to admire Kennedy deeply, and originally hoped to return to his office after graduate school.

"I planned to come back just as soon as the Kennedy School was over," he said. "It just didn't happen that way."

Today, as a speechwriter for a President who is also a highly skilled writer, Keenan said his greatest challenge is trying to meet Obama’s high standards.

"Our jobs are remarkably like graduate school. You get a paper assignment, you might pull an all-nighter or come in really early to finish, and you hand it in and then you get his marks back and find out whether he likes it or not," he joked. "The good thing is he'll make detailed edits when he gets the speech, and he's generous with his time—he'll walk us through the edits and explain why he made them. That makes us better writers."

Keenan's past and present collided on April 21, 2009, when President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act with Kennedy in attendance. Keenan drafted President Obama's speech for the event. Kennedy later sent him a handwritten note that read: "Seems like the Kennedy office and the Kennedy School have served you very well!"

Four months after that, Keenan helped the President craft his eulogy for Kennedy. Each time, he found himself deeply moved by the opportunity to write about the man who had shaped his notion of what public service could be. "It really brought things full circle," he said.

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Cody Keenan with the President

Cody Keenan works with the President on a speech. Photo provided, The White House.

"Our jobs are remarkably like graduate school. You get a paper assignment, you might pull an all-nighter or come in really early to finish, and you hand it in and then you get his marks back and find out whether [the President] likes it or not." - Cody Keenan

President Barack Obama "meets" with speechwriter Cody Keenan, who dressed as a pirate

President Barack Obama "meets" with speechwriter Cody Keenan, who dressed as a pirate for an Oval Office photo taken for use in the President's humorous speech to the White House Correspondents Association dinner May 9, 2009. Official White House Photo/Pete Souza.